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Wednesday, 7 March, 2001, 13:23 GMT
Anger of 'firework school' parents
Collapsed school building
The massive explosion caused extensive damage
Residents of the eastern Chinese community devastated by a strong explosion on Wednesday have been venting their anger about the possibility the blast was caused by an illegal fireworks factory at the local school.

Dozens of children were killed, as well as several teachers, and rescuers said only a handful were pulled alive from under the pile of heavy wooden beams and masonry.


I rescued four kids, three boys and a girl, but I couldn't find my so

Father of 9-year-old victim
Villagers from Fang Lin, in Jiangxi province, dug for hours with spades and their bare hands in a desperate effort to free the survivors before police and fire-fighters arrived in large numbers.

"I helped them dig out 30 to 40 bodies - not one was alive," Ding Haigen, a builder who lives opposite the school, told AFP.

"They suffered terribly. Some of the bodies had their heads blown off."

Another man - also quoted by AFP - said he dashed to the scene hoping to rescue his nine-year-old son after the blast had blown out windows at his home about 100 metres away.

Soldiers dig for victims of school blast
It was hours before organised help arrived
"As soon as I heard a cry, I went toward it. When I saw a leg or an arm sticking out, I went after it. I rescued four kids, three boys and a girl, but I couldn't find my son," the father said.

The boy's dead body was eventually recovered hours after the explosion, he said.

"Unlike the other children, his body was intact, probably crushed to death. He was still holding a piece of paper - probably from a school book - in one of his hands."

'Fines for not working'

Villagers said that the firework-making business had been set up by the school's head teacher - the area was a haven for legal and illegal fireworks factories, where accidents were common, they said.

Map
"They began forcing students to do this two to three years ago. Teachers gave responsibility to the kids to make firecrackers during their lunch hour. The school wanted to make money," said Mr Ding, the builder.

"They didn't pay the kids anything. The parents complained many times to the school and the township government, but nothing happened," he added.

The bereaved father said children were even fined a few pennies if they refused to work.

"The school would make one class work one day and another class work another day. Sometimes they spent one afternoon doing it, sometimes two class periods," he added.

Rescue workers
Only a handful of survivors were pulled from the rubble
"The kids who didn't do the work were forced to pay fines. They told them it was their responsibility to help the school," he said.

He suggested the school was rushing to finish orders for the Qingming Festival, or Grave Sweeping Festival, on April 5.

Human rights workers confirmed that chronic underfunding in schools in rural China was a real problem, forcing education officials to raise money in unusual, sometimes reckless, ways.

There are reports of teachers having to sell semen and tobacco to help fund local schools. In one school in Shanghai, state television reported last month, a room was even rented out for use as a gambling den.

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See also:

07 Mar 01 | Asia-Pacific
Fireworks blamed for China school deaths
02 Jul 00 | Asia-Pacific
China closes fireworks factories
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